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  • Ethiopia Charts A New Course
  • J. Stephen Morrison (bio)

On 27 May 1991, troops of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) marched into Addis Ababa, putting an end to 17 years of brutal military dictatorship. One year later, it is now a good time to ask how the EPRDF and its partners have fared in their struggle to effect the far-reaching changes that must be made if their country is to free itself from the shackles of a bloody and tragic past.

With mythic origins in the legendary kingdom of Aksum and an identity tightly bound up with the traditions of the Ethiopian Orthodox (Coptic) Church, Ethiopia began to assume its modem form in the late nineteenth century as a succession of ambitious imperial dynasts pressed the limits of their rule beyond the traditional heartland of the central plateau. Pushing out steadily in several directions, they incorporated the largely Muslim peoples of the peripheral lowlands and established a system of lucrative feudal fiefdoms in the fertile south. The legacy of this expansionism is a society of some 53 million people from over 80 ethnic groups speaking more than 70 languages. The largest groups include the culturally and politically preeminent Amhara (15-20 percent), the Oromo (30-40 percent of the population, mostly concentrated in the south but also assimilated in significant numbers into Amhara circles), and the Tigreans (just under 10 percent). Orthodox Christians and Muslims predominate, in roughly equal numbers, joined by a minority of Protestants and animists. [End Page 125]

European colonialism reached Ethiopia relatively late, when the Italians seized the Red Sea port of Massawa in 1885 and established the colony of Eritrea five years later. Italy's desire to control all of Ethiopia, first thwarted at the battle of Adowa in 1896, was finally realized in 1935 when Mussolini's forces drove Emperor Haile Selassie into exile and seized Addis Ababa. British troops returned Selassie to the throne in 1941; 11 years later, a UN resolution made Eritrea an autonomous unit in federation with Ethiopia. When the emperor abrogated this arrangement and annexed Eritrea in 1962, he touched off the separatist insurgency that was to become the highly formidable Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) of the 1980s.

A military mutiny that began in early 1974 resulted by September of that year in the overthrow of Haile Selassie and the rise to power of an officers' junta known as the Dergue. Less than three years later, Colonel Mengistu Halle Madam won a bloody internal power struggle and emerged as the regime's dominant figure. In early 1977, as tensions with neighboring Somalia grew and U.S. arms shipments ceased, Mengistu began courting Soviet support. Over the next 14 years, the USSR would send the Dergue an estimated $13 billion in aid; assist in repulsing the late 1970s Somali invasion of the Ogaden; contribute to the regime's 1984 creation of the Workers' Party of Ethiopia (WPE) as a communist "vanguard"; and assist in the writing of a Stalinist national constitution in 1987.

Throughout the latter half of the 1980s, popular discontent rose in reaction to the brutal repression of dissent, the dismal performance of the centrally planned economy, the excessive taxation of the peasantry, recurrent mass-conscription drives, and forced population resettlement. Also on the rise were regional insurgencies like the Tigrean People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which skillfully mobilized the Tigrean peasantry and in 1989 joined with its northern Amhara affiliate, the Ethiopia People's Democratic Movement (EPDM), to form the EPRDF.

The devastating 1984-85 famine, compounded by war and concentrated in northern areas including Tigray and Eritrea, killed over a million people and displaced millions more. Subsequent droughts, combined with large-scale armed conflict, perpetuated a massive dependency on external relief, drove additional hundreds of thousands from their homes, and precluded any possibility of recovery and reconstruction.

As the 1980s ended, Mengistu's fortunes began a drastic decline. Starting in early 1989, the TPLF and EPLF's coordinated strategy paid off in a string of stunning victories that demoralized his army and helped to spark the failed coup attempt of April 1989. The drying up of East German, Czech, and...


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